Sensory deprivation on the High Plains

  • Face-lift: Gillette under construction in 1978

    A. Held

Note: this story is one of three feature stories in this issue about Wyoming's boom and bust economy.

I'm always searching for omens, like any fool. As we left Missoula, Mont., in 1995 for Campbell County, Wyo., and as our moving van came into the orbit of Gillette, I fiddled with the radio dial and happened onto the Tennessee coon hunter, Jimmy Martin, singing the Bill Monroe chestnut, "The Old Crossroads." The chorus goes like this:

"The old crossroads now is waiting/ Which one are you going to take/ One road leads to destruction/ The other up to the pearly gates."

This was music from home, music I'd never found on the radio outside the Appalachians, where I was raised in a coal-mining family, where Grandpap Smith said he had dodged bullets to sprawl himself before trucks loaded with scab coal back in the 1930s.

It was the best of omens: We were moving to the austere expanses of the High Plains; we were moving to coal country; we were moving to a place where great hillbilly gospel music came in over the radio.

Just a week before, Lisa had been hired to teach German in the Campbell County School District. And now we were leaving our small house at the base of Missoula's Mount Jumbo. We were leaving "the Paris of the West," a national newspaper story called it.

We were leaving because we wanted to live in the Intermountain West and not in France. Missoula was losing some of its hippie funk; rents had nearly tripled just in my three years there. We were both working full time and more at minimum-wage jobs. In Campbell County, where the living was surely cheaper, Lisa would teach and I would work part time and write.

The wind-blown landscapes reminded Lisa of her childhood home in eastern Montana, and I was going back to coal country and my hillbilly origins and such songs as "Nine Pound Hammer" and "Sixteen Tons." I grew up singing those songs, and I looked forward to again being around those people. They had to be there. In 1989, the Black Thunder mine in Campbell County broke the world record for monthly coal-production. It displaced as record holder the #7 mine in southern Ohio, where my father and grandfather had worked.

First stop, Mustang Motel

The first week in Gillette we parked ourselves in the Mustang Motel, under the I-90 overpass. While Lisa was at school getting oriented, I sat in a vinyl chair outside our room, reading Chris Offutt, with the boom box blasting out Dwight Yoakam, and watching the miles and miles of coal cars pass through the switching yards across the way. I was giddy with our great good fortune. Not even our motel's Saudi proprietor, who informed me that the last person who'd stayed there while apartment-hunting had died before he managed to find an affordable place, could dim my glee.

"His dog died, too," Mbark said over my disbelieving laughter.

Then Lisa and I went looking. Rents were as high as in Missoula, but the apartments here were drab, with stinking shag carpets, uninsulated exterior walls, windows that rattled in the wind, and woodstoves, even though there wasn't a tree anywhere except on people's lawns.

We finally found a basement place on Rockpile Boulevard in downtown Gillette, in what had been an auto-repair garage. We emerged from this cave into the blaring August light, the streets screaming with Muscle Wagons, multicolored flames painted back onto the hood.

Ah, ha, you say: boomtown rednecks, big boys and their toys. That's the Gillette you read about, in the late 1970s, when the town's population doubled, tripled and quadrupled, as it struggled to accommodate an oil, a coal and even a (stillborn, as it turned out) uranium boom.

The spouse abuse, the people living in tents in 35 degrees-below-zero winters and violent crime got the city a complex named for it: "The Gillette Syndrome." Researchers, shrinks and journalists were everywhere.

Twenty years later, they would scarcely recognize the place, except maybe for our neighborhood. As soon as we left downtown, we found strip malls and office buildings done up in that industrial-institutional architecture of the 1970s and 1980s: low-slung, flat-roofed, ungainly brick rectangles. Then there were the housing developments: "Antelope Hills," "Sleepy Hollow" and "Indian Hills' with green lawns, minivans and centrally located soccer fields.

In 25 years, it seemed, Gillette had gone from cowtown to boomtown to working-class suburban, interchangeable with the rest of America, and bearing absolutely no relationship to the High Plains of Wyoming. On the other hand, it has wonderful recreational facilities, and for a mid-size city, a fine public library.

On our first weekend, we found a flyer for a Saturday morning Farmer's Market. We had visions of fresh produce and tips on how to garden. Instead, at the Rockpile Community Center that Saturday morning we found only a rummage sale. When we asked where we might find the Farmer's Market a woman grinned and told us: "It was a busy one today. There was a guy here at 7 a.m. He had a few dozen eggs and he sold them and left. That's the Gillette Farmer's Market."

We soon discovered that people drive two hours or more to shop in Rapid City, or Billings or Sheridan. But who cares about shopping? I loved what I saw outside of Gillette: the softly rolling sagebrush grasslands set about with buttes and pinnacles and pronghorn antelope. I read everything I could find about the High Plains, and then I tried to get onto the land. On a map the county includes numerous large tracts labeled "Thunder Basin National Grassland."

Unfortunately, they're all leased to coal companies and closed to the public. I learned that any extended walking would require an 80-mile round-trip from Gillette.

During that winter, thanks to the Casper Star-Tribune, I came to know something of Wyoming. The letters-to-the-editor page showed that the Wyoming character is irascible, conservative and opinionated. I disagreed with much of what I read but relished the letters. They were like nothing I heard in Gillette; they expressed the genius of a sparsely populated state.

There was lots of crankiness expressed toward the federal government, and toward the values Lisa and I hold. But there was also intrastate crankiness. Some of it was aimed at Jackson Hole, because it is liberal and tony. I understood that.

But then there was the crankiness aimed at Gillette, which is 75 percent Republican and anything but foo foo. Was it envy of Gillette's high standard of living, its recreation centers? I didn't think so. Late that winter the Campbell County (really Gillette) girls' high school basketball team won its third consecutive state championship and was ranked nationally in several polls. No one outside of the town showed any pride. Why?

Here are some scores from that season: Gillette, 110, Tongue River, 33. Gillette, 94, Newcastle,42. Gillette, 96, Sheridan, 26.

The Gillette girls had shown no mercy, which may be the native genius in Gillette. That got me thinking about corporate culture. In place of community and cooperation, corporate culture would uphold a winner-take-all competition. Thanks to its large (for Wyoming) population of 30,000 and its ability to hire top coaches, Campbell County High School routinely collects state championships in just about every sport, and the scores are nearly always unforgivably lopsided.

The dominance comes at a price. The high school has long been overcrowded, and for years administrators refused to build another. They were frank about why: Heedless of the educational benefits such a split would bring, they feared losing the school's edge in sports. Recently they've agreed to open another school - but only with the proviso that the two schools reunite after school each day to combine forces for athletics. So much for everybody getting a chance to play.

Outpost of corporate America

If Gillette is a colony of corporate America, it is largely the work of Mike Enzi, a shoe salesman who took over as mayor in the boom years. Enzi got the city a long-lasting water supply; he saw to the construction of recreation centers and medical facilities and Cam-plex, the multipurpose civic center. And he got federal and state money to subsidize development. He did it all with help from the mining companies.

After several years, he was elected to the state legislature, and in his years in Cheyenne he authored numerous bills that let the mining companies do less and less for Campbell County and the state of Wyoming. He consistently opposed raising their severance tax, and sponsored an "industry self-audit" bill which allows mines to monitor their own compliance with federal environmental regulations. It's no secret that the bill, which handily passed, was written by coal companies.

Last fall, he was elected to take Al Simpson's seat in the U.S. Senate. Whatever you think of Simpson's politics, his character was piss-and-vinegar Wyoming-true. Enzi's are American corporate, and the mining companies recognized his colors, and contributed enough to his campaign to make it the most expensive political race ever waged in Wyoming.

Enzi won out over Kathy Karpan, a tough and principled Democrat who had served as Gov. Mike Sullivan's Secretary of State. Interestingly, President Bill Clinton recently appointed Karpan to direct the national Office of Surface Mining, which has oversight of the mines in Enzi's backyard. This could be a competition worth watching.

It may have been unintended, but Enzi's development of Gillette swept away whatever had been authentic about the city. Old Gillette has been tamed not by the sheriff or the Women's Christian Temperance Union but by the suits from ARCO and Kerr-McGee and Kennecott. The town seems to look down on anything local. If it's going to have a restaurant, it will be a national chain.

"Gillette is a good place to be from," a barkeep in Sheridan told me last March. "A good place to be away from." He didn't grin. The son of miners, he'd grown up in Gillette and then left five years ago to study English at Sheridan College. He rarely drives the 100 miles to Gillette. His folks, he says, "would rather come here."

When I ask people why they stay, they say, "It's a safe place to raise kids." That may explain why there are virtually no single people, few childless couples and hardly any elderly. Yet despite all the families, family values do not do well here. The old Gillette Syndrome has passed, but rates of alcoholism and depression and spouse abuse remain high. The per capita divorce rate is the third highest in the country. My informal, unscientific survey shows that one out of three people are planning to move "as soon as the kids finish high school."

Lisa and I spent most of that first summer away from Gillette, visiting friends and family. Since we didn't have kids to finish high school, when we returned the following August, we moved to Wright, the 1,200-person town 40 miles south of Gillette, where Lisa had been teaching at the other Campbell County high school.

Twenty years ago, Wright was part of a bison ranch at the intersection of Wyoming 59 and 387. ARCO bought the square-mile section in 1976 and developed it as a planned community, so that miners at its Black Thunder mine wouldn't have to drive 90 miles roundtrip from Gillette.

Wright works hard to distance itself from Gillette, even avoiding mentioning the larger city by name while it touts Wright's proximity to the airport, and medical and entertainment facilities available in Gillette. Wright has a sense of itself and its place on the High Plains that seems to be missing in Gillette: Local ranchers serve on the school board and chamber of commerce and seem well-integrated into the community.

Nevertheless, we're leaving Campbell County this July. We're leaving some good people and a beautiful landscape, and decent-paying and reliable work in a place that's always been short of that. We're leaving because we wanted a home, a place rooted in a landscape. I'm not about to bemoan the windfall that the mines have brought. Only what that windfall has cost - a sense of place.

The coal companies enjoy an almost royal hegemony here, unchallenged by unions, by the subservient and almost groveling state legislature, and by environmentalists, except for the small and vigilant Powder River Basin Council.

Also, I discovered that "The Old Crossroads' tune I heard that night wasn't coming from a Campbell County station but from an all-night show out of Salt Lake City. It was aimed at over-the-road truck-drivers - a tribe made up mainly of people from Appalachia.

So much for omens.

Jeffery Smith recently wrote about evangelical Christians preaching a "green Gospel" in High Country News, April 28.

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